By Tom Henderson • Staff Writer • 

Letter to readers: Story deemed worth protection of source

I was interviewing a van carrying addicts on their way to a methadone clinic in Salem about 4 a.m. Wednesday when the voice of singer Don Henley came wafting over the radio.

“I make my living off the evening news,” he sang. “Just give me something, something I can use. People love it when you lose. They love dirty laundry.”

Irony, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? To evoke a song Henley performed 10 years earlier, when he was with The Eagles, let me just say, “Take it easy.”

My conscience is clean. Well, almost clean.

A lot of people seem to believe journalists package human drama in a cheap attempt to move “papers,” as if modern journalism were a production of “Newsies.”

Hardly. While we want people to read the paper, it’s because we feel its stories have value to the community.

However, when I said my conscience was “almost” clean, I had the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics in mind. Not 160 words into the code, it admonishes journalists to “identify sources clearly.”

That’s a hard claim for me to make with respect to my story on the clinic trip, as it only identifies one of the addicts, and her just by her first name.

I take the code seriously. I do not — as a reporter I once fired insisted — treat “should” as a mere a suggestion. It is far more important. It is the right thing to do.

Thus, using only a source’s first name makes me uneasy. Yet sometimes there is more than one right thing.

In this case, none of the addicts would give me a last name, let alone allow me to use it in print. It seems they don’t even share last names with one another.

One would allow me to use a first name, but that was it. They explained that public identification would risk all kinds of repercussions for spouses and, in some cases, children.

The driver said he jeopardized his job just letting a member of the press ride along. So he asked that neither he nor his company be identified.

Ignoring such wishes wouldn’t be the right thing to do either. So the editors and I made a rare exception. We let the primary source be identified by only her first name.

We do these sorts of things solely when there is a compelling reason. Typically, that means there’s no other way to tell an important story.

This story reflects an underground segment of the community that too often goes unheard. We felt it demanded telling and hope you agree.

Tom Henderson

Regional & Social Issues Reporter


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